Select Page

How Do Indian Reservations Work?

In the United States, Indian reservations are lands that have been set aside by the federal government for Native American tribes. There are approximately 326 Indian reservations in the US, spread across 27 states. Native Americans have the right to govern themselves and make decisions about the use of their land within the boundaries of reservations. This freedom is known as tribal sovereignty. This blog post will explore the history and function of Indian reservations in the US.

The History of Indian Reservations

Throughout the 19th century, the U.S government forced Native Americans to move from their ancestral lands to reservations. This was done through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the federal government to move southeastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi River. Then, in 1851, the US government began negotiating treaties with tribes, creating reservations as a way to move tribes to specific areas of land. However, many of these treaties were not upheld, and Native Americans were frequently subjected to violence and oppression. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 sought to remedy some of the injustices inflicted upon Native Americans by giving them more control over their own affairs. This law also encouraged tribes to form their own governments and constitutions.

Tribal Sovereignty

One of the most important aspects of Indian reservations is tribal sovereignty, which is the right of Native American tribes to make their own decisions about their land and government. Tribal governments have the authority to make and enforce their own laws, levy taxes, and operate programs and services for their citizens. Tribal courts have jurisdiction over many criminal and civil cases that occur on reservation lands. Additionally, tribes have the right to regulate their own natural resources, such as water and minerals, on their land. This right is protected by treaties between tribes and the federal government, as well as federal laws such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975.

Challenges and Controversies

Despite the protections afforded to Indian reservations, there have been many challenges and controversies surrounding these lands. One major issue is poverty. According to the US Census Bureau, Native Americans living on reservations have a poverty rate of more than twice the national average. Many reservations lack basic infrastructure such as running water, electricity, and internet access.Another issue is jurisdictional confusion. Reservations are often located within states, and there can be confusion about which legal jurisdiction takes precedence in various situations. For example, if a non-Native American commits a crime on reservation land, it may be unclear whether tribal or state authorities have jurisdiction over the case.Finally, there has been controversy over the use of reservation lands for natural resource extraction. While tribes have the right to regulate their own natural resources, mining and drilling companies have attempted to exploit these resources without proper consultation with tribal governments. In some cases, this has led to environmental degradation and negative health impacts on tribal members.


In conclusion, Indian reservations are lands that have been set aside by the federal government for Native American tribes. These lands are governed by tribal governments, which have the right to self-governance and control over their natural resources. While there have been challenges and controversies surrounding Indian reservations, they remain an important part of American history and provide Native American communities with a degree of autonomy and agency.